Thu, Oct 11, 2018 - Page 4 News List

Minicars attract huge following among elderly in Japan

Reuters, TOKYO

Horie Miho drives his minicar after visiting a minicar dealership in Yamato, Japan, on Aug. 11.

Photo: Reuters

When Honda Motor Co launched the latest version of its N-Box a year ago, it promoted features on the pint-sized minicar such as error-detecting pedals, automatic emergency braking and movable seats, part of a push to market the vehicle to young families.

However, a drastically different demographic has made the N-Box the nation’s best-selling passenger vehicle: About half the owners of the most recent model are 50 or older.

Automakers had hoped high-tech options would attract younger buyers to minicars, or kei-cars, even as the number of Japanese drivers under 30 has declined nearly 40 percent since 2001.

Instead, with a price tag starting at about US$7,500 and low ownership taxes, minicars have gained a more loyal following among the rapidly growing population of elderly Japanese, many of whom are on fixed incomes.

“After their children are grown and leave home, more people are looking to downsize from larger family cars to more compact ones,” said Kiminori Murano, managing director at Tortoise, a dealership specializing in minicars in Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture.

At Tortoise, seniors have overtaken young families as the biggest customer group in the past decade, making up more than 70 percent of its clientele.

Kei-cars represent nearly a third of all Japanese passenger car sales, and about one of every 20 cars sold this year has been an N-Box.

All of Japan’s major automakers sell the no-frills, fuel-sipping vehicles, almost exclusively for the domestic market. With their 660cc engines — a size more common in motorcycles than cars — minicars are considered too small for most overseas markets.

Many in the industry predict that eventually, automated cars, taxis and buses would keep the elderly mobile for longer.

Until that future arrives, demand for cheap, safe and easy-to-drive vehicles like the N-Box is growing sharply among older Japanese in a nation that is home to one the world’s most rapidly aging populations.

The success of these cars could also provide a blueprint for marketing such vehicles to older drivers overseas.

When Yoshiyuki Imada’s car insurance expires early next year, the 68-year-old retired truck operator from Kagoshima Prefecture is planning to trade in the Toyota Mark II sedan he has been driving for nearly 20 years for a minicar.

“Smaller cars are easier to drive as you get older,” he said.

Honda said the safety features in the N-Box were not designed just with the elderly in mind, but the company said they could help older drivers stay on the road.

“We wouldn’t want elderly people to become holed up in their homes because they can’t get around. We want to do what we can to enable them to stay mobile for as long as possible,” Hideaki Takaishi, senior safety engineer at Honda, said in an interview.

For years, TV commercials for kei-cars have been a montage of energetic twentysomethings, often popular boy band members, camping or frolicking at the beach.

More recently, advertisements have featured sentimental snapshots of families with young children.

However, minicar marketing is slowly starting to reflect the segment’s biggest buyers. This year, Daihatsu Motor, a subsidiary of Toyota Motor Corp, released a TV spot featuring an elderly cabbage farmer who berates his son for suggesting that he switch to a minitruck with automated emergency braking, misreading it as a slight to his driving skills.

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